Sammy Chu, CEO, Edgewise Energy: Hello, this is Sammy Chu. Welcome everybody. I’m very excited today because joining us today is our guest, Sarah Oral, my very good friend, director of civil engineering with Cameron Engineering. Sarah and I have been working for the past year on a number of different things. We run into each other on the on the clean energy circuit all over the place, where it’s things related to buildings or transportation. But for the last year, we’ve been working together through the USGBC Long Island chapter on trying to advocate more benchmarking and really this was an outgrowth of the work that Sarah has been doing, she’s been really very dedicated to driving clean energy and energy efficiency on Long Island, and I’m excited to hear about her experiences and let everyone know what the next steps are for Long Island really to come up to speed to the rest of the region, most notably New York City. So, Sarah, how are you today?
Sarah Oral, Director of Civil Engineering with Cameron Engineering: I’m doing well. Thank you for having me.
Sammy Chu: So, we’ve had conversations on Long Island in the energy geek World for a number of years about benchmarking. New York City has been benchmarking — and for those of you that don’t know what benchmarking is, it’s probably worth giving a quick primer. Benchmarking is something that’s been around for I think over two decades now primarily administered through EPA program called portfolio manager, which allows buildings really to enter a bunch of their data with its occupant data the type of use of the building and of course their energy usage and it gives them a score. So, quite simply that’s what benchmarking is.
Sammy Chu: And New York City, notably, has passed laws, that require benchmarking for buildings over 50,000 square feet and now that’s down to 25,000 square feet. And now they’re actually moving to mandates that people act on those results and always wondered how we can get it here on Long Island and a lot of folks, were quite truthfully, a little pessimistic that we can ever get to a place on Long Island because we have So, many different municipal structures and environments and pretty complicated, method of getting, Regional regulation done. But that changed because of the work that Sarah was doing, and Sarah has been working for the last several years with NYSERDA to administer the Clean Energy Communities program for Long Island municipalities and one of the components of that was benchmarking. And she’s really, in my mind been the main driver and really reinvigorating a conversation around benchmarking. So, Sarah can you tell us about how the Clean Energy Communities program works, how it got started, what the intent was, and then maybe tell us a little bit also, about how benchmarking fits and all that.
Sarah Oral: Yeah. Sure. Thanks Sammy. Clean Energy Communities started in 2016 as a way to recognize municipalities across the state who were early adopters with energy conservation items as well as policy choices. So, the beginning of the program there were designated grants for each region of the state including Long Island. And So, I lead a team of four coordinators down here on Long Island. We work directly with the 115 municipalities that are located here on Long Island — those are counties, towns, villages and cities — and we work with them and offer free technical assistance to help them complete what NYSERDA has dubbed “high-impact action items.” So, what are some of the high impact action items? As you mentioned benchmarking is one of the high impact action items. Clean energy upgrades, purchasing electric vehicles or having alternative fuel stations on site and made available to the public. These items are statewide, So, Community Choice Aggregation is one of the items that could be done PACE financing which is a way to finance energy upgrades for businesses. There’s a lot of items that help reduce energy use throughout the state and here on Long Island and one of the items that had great uptake was actually benchmarking which is pretty surprising.
Sammy Chu: What I find most fascinating and impactful about the way Clean Energy Communities are structured as someone who’s been around pretty early on, as a public official, I say as a recovering public official now, you know when municipalities were all talking about Green, I was fortunate to be around in the Golden Era of conversation around, you know, Green Building and when municipalities latched onto this we saw that manifest itself in a number of different efforts, but usually it was one off initiatives, right? When I was in Babylon, we were big on PACE financing. We were really big on retrofitting homes, and that was a great program and we saw other towns install solar on their properties. These municipalities they check their “Oh we did something; we did a Green Box.”
I remember and I’m not knocking it. it was effective and probably the most adorable green initiative ever. the Town of Hempstead, about a decade ago, launches a green initiative. “We’re going to have goats eat grass instead of instead of machines to mows Lawns.” But you know, I think it’s a far stretch to round up some goats to eat grass instead of lawn mowers and call yourself a green community and this Clean Energy Communities Program really, drives municipalities to consider in a structured way, not just one initiative but a structured, a structured platform to really check off multiple boxes to not just getting becoming a “clean energy community.” But also, how far can you take it?
Sarah Oral: Yeah, and what’s great is there’s this menu of ten high impact action items and if a community completes four of them, they become designated “clean energy communities” and at the beginning of the program, there was a lot of money attached to that. There were “no match” grants up to 250,000 dollars available for communities on Long Island who became designated Clean Energy Communities. And for those of you who have never heard “no match” before, normally when a community gets a grant from a higher level of government such as the state or the federal government, they’re expected to pay a certain share of the total price of whatever they’ll be using that grant towards. So, these “no match” grants were flat-out money for communities to actually implement clean energy projects that they had only dreamed of and the money also, was a carrot that was dangled because, as we know, politically not all communities are willing to sign on to programs that may be tied specifically to climate change or just the changing environment in general. So, when we would go out to talk to these communities, we would either “sell the green” or “sell the Green.” So, in certain communities, you talk about how this program would help benefit the environment and in others you would talk about the bottom line – about how a lot of these initiatives would result in energy savings, which the money could then be invested back in the town, village, county or city.
Sammy Chu: Part of a constant struggle to get clean energy is a nonpartisan not the nonpartisan ground. an important thing is that they’re actually taking action and doing something.
Sarah Oral: Yes, and one of the free items that they could complete was “benchmarking.”
Sammy Chu: So, what were the most popular
Sarah Oral: Okay, the most popular we’re all of the ones that cost the least amount of money and to our least amount of time. And again, there were a limited amount of grants that we understand the amount of time – So, benchmarking was extremely popular adopting the unified solar permit was extremely popular and part of that is that the Statewide unified solar permit is actually based on an initiative that started right here on Long Island.
Sammy Chu: I remember.
Sarah Oral: I believe that was 2012.
Sammy Chu: That was Dave Calone at the Suffolk County Planning Commission.
Yes, there was a lot of support from the Clean Energy Leadership Taskforce. Milos’ group at the Sustainability Institute, and I believe the majority of the town signed on back then to create this solar permit that would make it easier for local solar companies to actually install solar = to not have different rules in every town -helped eliminate some of the soft costs that were driving up prices of solar. So, the state loved that idea So, much, they created a state-wide unified solar permit. So, communities here on Long Island that had already adopted the Long Island solar permit got credit for having adopted that already So, that was one that a lot of people took. The program also, offers free energy code training. So, the newest energy code that had different requirements from previous codes, there’s an entire training module for larger communities where there are at least 40,000 residents and there are day-long seminars for those who represent the building departments of smaller communities. So, that’s another action item that was completed by a lot of communities. And then the last one’s a toss-up but I would say the fourth place item would be the clean fleets initiative because that required either the purchase or lease of one alternate fuel vehicle or the installation of one dual-port electric vehicle charging station or an alternative fuel charging station. So, the Town of Hempstead got credit for having compressed natural gas and hydrogen fueling stations.
Sammy Chu: Didn’t get credit for the goats.
Sarah Oral: They did not get credit for the goats!
Sammy Chu: That’s unfortunate.
Sarah Oral: There’s a different kind of, I was going to say horsepower, but goats don’t have horsepower.
Sammy Chu: So, as it relates to benchmarking, and those are all great things. And again, it’s gave them instruction items to shoot for and I imagine some municipalities are also, exceeding those points. You don’t have to stop at those four points – they can also, do additional things. So, I’ve seen already in conversation, some of these municipalities is that they’re going further and it’s actually, been able to spur some additional momentum.
Sarah Oral: Yes.
Sammy Chu: But benchmarking, I want to dig into benchmarking because that’s the one that really caught my attention as an opportunity to really, drive this thing outside the municipal effort into the rest of the region and I want to ask about your experience with introducing benchmarking to these municipal officials – some of who are the most incredible people you’re ever going to meet but some who may not necessarily be the most imaginative and I really would love to know you’ve worked with a lot of municipalities, what were some of the reactions like to the concept of benchmarking?
Sarah Oral: I think the first reaction that most people would give us was, “Well, what is benchmarking? I don’t understand.” And So, we went through the whole introduction to the concept of benchmarking as a way to keep track of your energy use and all of the different types of energy that you use. Some municipalities just have electricity and natural gas. Some have oil deliveries, diesel deliveries, and it was explaining to them that there’s this very easy-to-use program, and you could just input all of your information and you could keep track of your usage year-to-year to see how you’re performing but also, look for patterns within the year. I think the easiest way to tell a municipality that may not be So, energy-savvy some of the benefits of benchmarking, was, if you see your natural gas spiking in the summer, there might be something wrong with your system, because in general, natural gas spikes in the winter when you’re heating the building, and electricity spikes in the summer when you’re cooling the building with your air conditioner. Or you could even just look at what the patterns look like and try to neutralize it throughout the year. What could we be doing? Just talking about energy in general, a lot of municipalities have really old buildings here on Long Island, especially at the Village level some of these Village Halls were built a hundred years ago – a hundred twenty years ago, and there are several where they have mentioned to me, “We run space heaters in the summer and air conditioning in the winter because there’s nobody to balance the temperature in our building.”
Sammy Chu: When we talk about pre-war municipal buildings – actually pre-revolutionary war…
Sarah Oral: The heating system is just some guy lighting a fire that everybody sits around and rubbing their hands. People really like the idea of looking at how they themselves were performing.
Sammy Chu: So, you manage to get them through the conceptual, wrapping their head around the concept how difficult was it to get them actually on-boarded and actually benchmarking?
Sarah Oral: The actual onboarding and benchmarking process is, I don’t even think of it as taking any time. The most time-consuming part of it was filling in the building information on Portfolio Manager because you need some pieces of information. When was the building built? What’s the occupancy of the building? What’s the use of the building? Information like that that probably takes 10 to 15 minutes to get all of the data entered into the system and just keep in mind some of these people who I’m dealing with are not exactly tech-savvy. They don’t even use email.
Sammy Chu: Right. Most of them are probably working departments where they’re still when you call them ask you to fax them things.
Sarah Oral: Yes, faxes – everything is paper-based but everybody has been able to do this, but the actual inputting of data takes less than 5 minutes to put a year’s worth of data for a single building.
Sammy Chu: What were some of the results that they found like what were some of the things that came through? Was there any like “aha” moments through the data collection?
Sarah Oral: Well, yeah, one of the larger municipalities we’re working with, they actually identified three properties where they previously had buildings, but buildings have been demolished and they were still paying bills.